HC Deb 28 April 1966 vol 727 cc1101-10

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. McBride.]

10.18 p.m.

Sir John Eden (Bournemouth, West)

I am very glad—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber please do so quietly?

Sir J. Eden

I am very grateful to have the opportunity to speak in the House in support of the claim of Mr. William Binning, who lost the sight of both his eyes shortly after working at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, at Farnborough, in 1945. I am particularly glad also that this debate is being answered by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army, who is to speak at that Box for the first time, and whom we welcome this evening.

I must admit that I was a bit surprised when I learned that it was he who was to reply to this debate, because it was only recently that I had written to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance on this subject. I am glad to see him here as well. I had an answer to my letter to him from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Aviation, and now we move to the Ministry of Defence.

Of course, I have no idea how many Ministers have been involved in the detailed investigations of the claims which have been raised by Mr. Binning. When I first came to consider this case, and represented his views as his Member of Parliament in 1954, there were successive Parliamentary Secretaries to the Ministry of Supply who were then concerned with answering my references. My noble Friend Lord Aldington, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle), and my noble Friend, Lord Erroll, all of whom were Parliamentary Secretaries to the Ministry of Supply, took a great deal of trouble to investigate the claims which have been advanced in this case.

Before I became Member of Parliament for my present constituency my two predecessors took up the cudgels on behalf of Mr. Binning—the late Brendan Bracken, who was a notable campaigner for any cause in which he believed, and my immediate predecessor, Lord Cranborne. So over many years many have advanced the claims of "Bill" Binning. His case has been reviewed, I have no doubt, with the greatest care and with the greatest of sympathy, but, apart from the small ex gratia payment in 1948, no progress has been made.

The Department, whichever was currently responsible, refused to accept that it could be held in any way to be accountable for Mr. Binning's blindness. Why then, hon. Members may ask, in these circumstances do we not give up? Why do not I give up? The answer is because he, Mr. Binning, will not give up. And he will not give up because he has a strong sense of grievance. He feels that an injustice is being done, and that he is the victim of official refusal to accept responsibility.

It was in September, 1943, that he joined the Royal Aircraft Establishment, at Farnborough, and took up the duties of contract liaison officer which then involved him in considerable travel and work in the open. Early in 1945 he was transferred to the Tropicalisation Section at Ambarrow Court, and this necessitated his working inside a closed space and watching green blips on the radar screen.

Mr. Binning protested at this transfer. He did not wish to go there, and to move from the work which he was doing to this new work, and he protested most strongly on medical advice, because, shortly before he took up his original work at Farnborough, he had suffered severely from empyema. That was in 1939 and 1940, and he was properly advised to get into the open as much as possible.

It was soon after his transfer to this closed world, if I may so describe it, watching the screen, that he complained of eye trouble and reported sick. Shortly after that he was returned to Farnborough, and in April of that year, 1945, he applied to he released on account of ill-health caused by haemorrhages in the eyes. Mr. Binning had had trouble with his eyes before 1945, and he had never attempted to conceal that fact.

It was in 1936 that he had similar haemorrhages, but in the left eye only. After treatment, those haemorrhages were cleared up completely. By 1939, he had no trouble whatever with his eyesight, and his vision was perfectly clear. So much was that the case that, in 1943, he was able to train as a pilot under the Civil Air Guard Scheme of the day and successfully passed the Air Ministry's medical and ophthalmic tests for civil flying. If that means anything at all, it means that what had previously been a disease of the eyes affecting his vision had cleared up completely.

It is said that what he had been suffering from in those days was Eales' disease and that the trouble which subsequently occurred in 1945 was a recurrence of that previous ailment.

I have tried to find out all that I can about Eales' disease, and I will just quote two short extracts from the British Encyclopoedia of Medical Practice, the first from the second edition, Vol 10. It says: The striking features of the course of the disease are (i) the rapidity of the clearance of the haemorrhage". The sentence then qualifies that where it is aggravated by an extreme condition.

My second quotation is from the same work, but is taken from the second edition, Vol 2. It says: A peculiar feature of this disease is that the vitreous haemorrhages clear rapidly in the course of two or three weeks. Recurrences are common for some years. Those recurrences took place between the years 1936 and 1939. At the end of that period Mr. Binning's eyesight was fully restored. Even if that point is disputed, there can be no dispute that there was no reason for this type of disease to have lain dormant between 1939 and 1945 and suddenly to have reappeared affecting both eyes. That is very unusual, if it is common for it to reappear at all, and I can find no evidence that it is.

I conclude from that that some special circumstances had come about which caused damage to Mr. Binning's eyes. At any rate, even if the left eye which had previously been weakened had been expected subsequently again to have experienced the disease, there is no reason why it should have affected the second eye, and it is highly probable in that case that more rapid treatment at the time would have saved the sight of the second eye, at least. Medical opinion to which Mr. Binning has referred me seems to support that view.

There is, therefore, a real possibility that his work at the Tropicalisation Section so aggravated the dormant condition as to bring it back with increased vigour and cause the loss of the second eye. In presenting that argument to the Government of the day I am going as far as I believe to be fair towards the case which has consistently been put forward in rebuttal of Mr. Binning's claims.

Mr. Binning tells me that his medical history was carefully examined by a surgeon from St. Dunstan's. This eminent man reported as follows: Binning's blindness is not due to Eales' disease. In any case. the Ministry of Pensions have admitted a number of Eales' disease cases, and we experience no greater difficulty for an Eales' disease case than any other disease cases. Nor can we recall any Eales' disease case that has been turned down, although years ago, when we first met an Eales' disease case, the Ministry were not so quick at admitting them as they are now. Unfortunately, owing to a technicality, namely, that his blindness occurred prior to 1948, any claim that Mr. Binning advanced had to be made not under the Industrial Injuries Scheme, but under the Workmen's Compensation Acts, and this meant that he had to prove that the loss of his sight was due to an accident sustained whilst at work. There was no accident in the accepted sense of the word. There was no sudden blinding flash or explosion which caused the loss of his sight, but there was, due to the nature of his work in a confined space. with a curious type of lighting, persistent erosion or weakening of his eyesight.

Perhaps it is because there was no accident that all of us who have been campaigning on his behalf find it so difficult to produce the legal proof which the Ministry, the Department concerned, demands before it will even consider whether or not there is justification in the demand for compensation. I believe that the nature of Mr. Binning's work brought on this final collapse in his vision, and it is because I believe that that I welcome this opportunity once again to advance his claims.

Mr. Binning himself has had a varied life since those days. He has not allowed the loss of his sight to handicap him unduly. In fact, to my knowledge many hon. Members know that he has been, and currently is, engaged in performing sterling work on behalf of other blind people. He has travelled 185,000 miles since those days in 1945. He has travelled this vast distance as the appeals organiser for the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association in the South-Western area of the country, an area which is responsible for raising £80,000 annually, a large sum of money, for blind people.

There may be complicated medico-legal aspects of this case to which I have not done justice in my short remarks this evening, but I want to emphasise one thing before I sit down. It is that throughout all my investigations on his behalf, and all the researches that I have made, and the claims and counter-claims which have naturally taken place, there lurks in my mind an element of doubt. I cannot be certain that the loss of his sight was not caused by his work, and I do not see how anyone in the Department can be certain that it was not caused by his work.

I hope that this question will not turn on technicalities. The fact remains that a man has lost his sight. He is a man who, in my view, has a strong case for compensation. If a mistake is to be made, I would much rather it were made in his favour than against him, and I believe that in these enlightened days, when so much is, properly, spent on helping deserving cases, we have one here before us, right now in my speech, when I talk of the case of Mr. Binning.

If it is impossible for the hon. Gentleman, as I well understand it may be, to accept my pleas at this time, will he at the very least consider enabling Mr. Binning to appear in person to argue his claims before a genuinely independent tribunal? It is not only compensation that I want for him. I want more than anything else the chance to be given to him to get rid of the strong sense of grievance, a sense of grievance which I believe he is justified in holding.

10.35 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army (Mr. David Ennals)

One of the aspects of our parliamentary system of which I am sure we are all proud is the facility which exists for hon. Members to raise matters when they feel that there is a sense of injustice, even though the events in question go back a quarter of a century, as these events do.

In replying, I should like to thank the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) for the kind remarks that he made, and, of course, to join with him in paying my tribute to Mr. Binning.

Mr. Binning, as the hon. Gentleman said, is totally blind, and has been for more than 20 years. I know that he has been doing, and is now doing, sterling work on behalf of the National Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, and I think that Mr. Binning will have felt proud of the sincerity with which the hon. Gentleman has put forward his plea this evening.

Most medical opinion holds, as the hon. Gentleman said, that Mr. Binning's blindness is due to Eales' disease. I know that the hon. Gentleman produced a certain interpretation. I have before me statements made by specialists from Moorfields Eye Hospital, and I shall read an extract to show the contrary to the point that the hon. Gentleman made. This is a statement of 1947: It appears that this man has suffered from recurrent vitreous haemorrhage … This condition, when occurring in young people, particularly males, is known as Eales' disease. This particular disease has a propensity for sooner or later making itself apparent in the second eye, following a similar course as in the original eye. … On the evidence available there does not seem to be any connection between his working in a humid chamber for a relatively short time and the condition of his eyes. I have other evidence which I will not put before the House at the present time.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there are no grounds for claiming that the blindness from which Mr. Binning, unhappily, now suffers was caused by his work which he carried out as an employee of the Ministry of Aircraft Production. As has been said, Mr. Binning came, as a former employee of the London Electricity Supply Company, to the Ministry of Aircraft Production. He was employed at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, as a technical assistant from 1943 to 1945. He was then, as has also been said, against his wish posted on 6th February, 1945, to the Tropicalisation Section at Ambarrow Court, about eight miles from Farnborough. Here, radio components were tested in a tropical chamber under artificial conditions of heat and humidity designed to simulate those found in the tropics. As I said, Mr. Binning had not wanted to accept this transfer, and it was found possible to transfer him back to Farnborough five weeks later, on 13th March.

I have checked through the official records, and they show that Mr. Binning was at Ambarrow Court for only nine days during the period in question. The rest of the time he was winding up his previous job as contracts liaison officer, apart from a period of sick leave. In this period he did not carry out any equipment tests in the tropical chamber. Such tests were all done by experienced technicians, and Mr. Binning was new on the job. The official records show that it was possible that he may have entered the chamber a few times during the course of training. He may even have been asked on a few occasions to place components in the chamber for test purposes, but it will be recognised that this was during a very brief period.

A month after being posted back to Farnborough, he asked for his release because of the recurrence of a complaint from which he had suffered since as early as 1936 and at that time he was certified to be suffering from retinal haemorrhage of both eyes and was released on health grounds. It should be understood that the Department had no knowledge of his earlier trouble with his eyes. It should also be understood—I hope that the hon. Gentleman will realise this—that the suggestion that his condition was in some way related to his work was not made until about 10 months after the events in question.

It has been said that his blindness was due to his work in the Tropicalisation Section and that it resulted from excessive eye strain caused by checking the performance of cathode ray tubes, both in the laboratory and in the tropical chamber. I have been through our records with care and they show that during the period in question—February to March, 1945—no equipment containing cathode ray tubes was being used at Ambarrow Court. As I have said, Mr. Binning did not carry out any tests in the tropical chamber.

As Mr. Binning was in civil employment with the Ministry of Aircraft Production, his claim falls to be dealt with under the Workmen's Compensation Acts. These Acts provide that compensation may be paid only in respect of a loss of earning capacity resulting from personal injury by accident at work or through a scheduled industrial disease due to the nature of his employment. As the hon. Gentleman said, ever since 1945, Mr. Binning has been convinced that he has been the victim of an injustice and the hon. Gentleman and his predecessors in his constituency have sought to ensure that he had justice. It was Mr. Binning's view that he should be entitled to a pension. The hon. Gentleman knows that these claims have been examined exhaustively and sincerely by many of my predecessors of both parties during the last 10 and more years. I have been through the files and I know that they have examined with the same care the inquiries that have been made.

I am convinced, as were my predecessors, that there are no grounds on which any form of compensation can be paid, as there is no evidence that Mr. Binning's condition is due to work in Government service. Eales' disease is not a scheduled industrial disease for which workmen's compensation can be paid. There is no evidence of injury or accident for which an employer would be equally liable to pay compensation under the Acts and there are no grounds whatever on which we can accept that Mr. Binning's blindness was caused or contributed to by his work or by the conditions of work at the Royal Aircraft Establishment.

In these circumstances, we have been quite unable to make any award of workmen's compensation in Mr. Binning's favour. I am sorry, but I can reach no other conclusion tonight than that reached before—

Sir J. Eden

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he is absolutely satisfied that, had Mr. Binning not been working at Ambarrow Court, he would still have suffered this loss of sight?

Mr. Ennals

All the evidence at our disposal suggests that nothing which could have happened during the short period that Mr. Binning was at Ambarrow Court would have affected the progress of the disease. It was known that he had had it before. The Department had not known he had had it, but the facts showed that it had been known. Nothing during these days at Ambarrow Court could have led to the condition from which he now suffers.

As has been said in correspondence with previous hon. Members, if there had been a dispute under the Workmen's Compensation Acts, there could have been a resort to the county court, so that the matter could be tested. That, of course, is something which Mr. Binning may still seek to do, and I think that he should seek legal advice. The attitude which I am taking on behalf of the Department—it is an attitude which was taken by my predecessors—is neither a legalistic nor a pedantic point of view to take.

It is not a question whether we are sorry for the condition in which Mr. Binning finds himself. We have to ask whether it is possible to accept responsibility to assume that what happened when he was working in Government service was the explanation for his condition. Unless this is so it would not be right to award compensation.

Sir J. Eden

Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that it is the most extraordinary coincidence, to say the least, that when he happened to be working under these special conditions, only then, since 1939, did this disease reappear? That is what I find so extraordinarily hard to believe. I am sure there must be something more to it than that.

Mr. Ennals

The medical evidence from which I quoted, from the specialist at Moorfields Eye Hospital said that it is not unusual that this condition can recur in another eye at a later period. That is clearly what happened.

I was saying that there is not here a question whether there is sympathy. As the hon. Gentleman said, in 1948 the Treasury out of sympathy made a lump sum payment to Mr. Binning of £300 from the First Lord's Compassionate Fund. This grant was made solely from motives of sympathy. This was without any implication of liability as far as Her Majesty's Government were concerned.

I must confess that though I have the greatest possible sympathy with the position in which Mr. Binning finds himself and the greatest possible admiration for the courageous way in which he tackled his terrible disability and has now rendered assistance to others, it would be wrong, from all the evidence at my disposal and which has been provided to me, to suggest there is a responsibility here which can be borne.

I do not believe that any injustice has been done. I assure the hon. Gentleman that in this case Mr. Binning's case has been examined over the years with the greatest of care and I do not believe there is any ground for thinking that there has been injustice.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.